WASHINGTON -- Nine months after the departure of its previous director, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities has a new permanent leader, the Obama administration announced Thursday.
George Cooper, a former president of South Carolina State University, will take the top post at the initiative, which works to support black colleges as they apply for grants and contracts with federal agencies, and to make sure the institutions' interests are considered in the development of federal policy.
Cooper most recently served as a senior fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, conducting research on HBCU federal funding issues. But, previously, he experienced a somewhat rocky tenure as president of South Carolina State, where the board in 2010 declined to renew his contract at the end of his second year in office. After the board's composition changed several weeks later, Cooper was rehired but he went on to receive a vote of no confidence from the Faculty Senate before ultimately stepping down in 2012
Higher education associations representing historically black colleges and universities had previously criticized the administration for failing to name a permanent replacement since the previous director, John Silvanus Wilson Jr., left in January to become president of Morehouse College.
In a July letter, the leaders of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund urged Obama to select Linda Earley Chastang, who serves as a special adviser to the president's HBCU advisory board and was a NAFEO vice president, as the permanent director.
"We vetted dozens of candidates," the letter said. "We ultimately identified Linda Earley Chastang as our only candidate."
On Monday, the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., said through a spokeswoman that the organization would have “no comment” on the appointment of Cooper.
NAFEO’s president, Lezli Baskerville, said in a statement that the organization “salutes George Cooper and Ivory Toldson for their selection as the new leadership team,” referring to the deputy director appointee, who was also announced on Monday. Toldson is an associate professor of psychology at Howard University and a senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Baskerville said that Cooper was “very engaged" during his time at South Carolina State and that she would “eagerly anticipate" working with both Cooper and Toldson.
Wilson, the initiative's former director, also emphasized the importance of the director and deputy director pairing.
“I see what the White House did as a dual appointment,” he said in an interview. “That is, George Cooper and Ivory Toldson serving as a team, and I think it will be an effective combination.”
“Cooper brings agency experience and Toldson brings experience with gathering and analyzing data, strategy development, and speaking eloquently and forcefully about issues that impact HBCUs,” he said, declining to elaborate further on either appointment.
The incoming director, Wilson said, will have to, among other things, work with the leadership of HBCUs to figure out “how to move forward in the new climate” of affordability and accountability that President Obama outlined last month. Some HBCU advocates have expressed concern about a college rating system since their institutions, which serve large number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, have lagged behind other schools on metrics such as graduation rates.
Already, changes the Obama administration made to the PLUS loan program have caused a backlash from HBCU advocates. The Education Department in October 2011 tightened the underwriting standards for PLUS loans, a move that HBCU leaders say disproportionately denied the families of low-income students at their institutions from obtaining the loans.
Under pressure from those institutions — as well as other colleges serving large populations of poor students — the Education Department last month announced it would consider appeals from students denied PLUS loans. Officials also pledged to review the PLUS loan standards during a rulemaking session this spring.
Cooper did not respond to a request for comment Thursday and the Education Department declined to make him available for an interview. A spokesman, Cameron French, said he would begin his new role at some point next week.